A couple of years ago I walked into a darkened movie theater, the trailers already underway. As I fumbled my way to my seat, back to the screen, I heard a voice. I froze, my face immediately in my hands, and burst into tears. I didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. Hearing that voice, as familiar to me as my own, dissolved me. But why? Not knowing that a documentary had been created, it certainly took me by surprise. Strong emotional reactions to all things sweetly nostalgic are commonplace in the world of me. But, as I sat in my seat and cried through the rest of the trailer, I really did have to ask my self why. Why did I want to bawl like a baby as that voice filled the large room and wrapped itself around my heart?
I’m not, by a long shot, the only person of my generation to love Mister Rogers. I mean, come on, who with a heart doesn’t love the guy? But this was something bigger and far more profound to me than mere nostalgia. In that moment it hit me with such force that I could hardly move. Mister Rogers effected my life for good more than just about anyone else I have ever known – and I didn’t even know the guy outside of our 12” television screen. That man, in his cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes, with his trolley and puppets in the Neighborhood of Make Believe pulled off a miracle as real and profound to me as any loaves and fishes. In a childhood that, unbeknownst to my parents and despite their best efforts, contained events that were unspeakable and terrifying, Mister Rogers created a space that I went to every day of my childhood where I was absolutely and unquestionably safe. Where I was seen. Where I was loved, purely and unconditionally.
It wasn’t until that day, in that movie theater, and in the many subsequent viewings of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that I was consciously aware of the fact that I am who I am today in large part because of Fred Rogers and the work, the ministry, that he committed his life to. I’m finding my way to safety because he taught me how it felt and how to recognize it. I’m finding my way to love because he modeled it for me. I’m learning how to truly see myself – and, quite honestly, others – because I believed he truly saw me.
There are a small handful of individuals to whom I owe the fact that I’m now alive and thriving, and one of them is Mister Rogers. And there’s no way I’m the only one. There were millions of us that watched him every day of our young lives. There are millions of us now that are who we are because that man treated the space we shared as holy and told us every day that we had intrinsic value that we didn’t have to earn. He told us that we were liked just the way we are. No one else told me that. In fact, the opposite was pounded into us in a myriad of ways within in the bizarre social eco-system that is public schooling. There are those that have attacked and argued that he created a generation of narcissists with raging entitlement issues because he told us we were special. Please. While specialness has become one of our biggest illnesses as human beings, one of our biggest collective addictions, it’s not that kind of specialness he was talking about. He didn’t say, “You are more special, here post a selfie to prove it.” He gathered us in a circle in the beloved Neighborhood, had us all hold hands and told us that we were as special. That we had worth. Just by being who he was, Mister Rogers taught me to look to my left and to look to my right to see my beautiful loving and loved self reflected in everyone and everything I see. With just a few simple words, delivered sincerely and tenderly, he taught me to look within and recognize the intrinsic worth of my own soul. A worth that never has to be earned and can never be lost. That is the message of the Divine taught through every spiritual master that has walked the earth: Jesus, Buddha, Rumi, Eckhart Tolle and, yes, Fred Rogers.
Near the end of his life, he wondered if he had done enough, if he had been enough. If anything he had said or done had made a difference. If he was good enough to be counted among the sheep on the right hand of God. Mister Rogers, wherever you are, which I am certain is happily perched on the right hand of Love, on behalf of myself and the millions of others whose lives you blessed, I thank you. And I assure you that a deep and lasting difference was made. Were you good enough? Beautiful man you were, you are, goodness. And it will always be far more than enough.
With all my heart, Mister Rogers, thank you.
And, Happy Birthday.